HERS; A Puerto Rican Stew
By ESMERALDA SANTIAGO (1994)
I’M IN MY KITCHEN, browsing through Puerto Rican cookbooks, when it hits me. These books are in English, written for people who don’t know a sofrito from a sombrero. Then I remember the afternoon I returned to Puerto Rico for the summer after 15 years of living in the United States. The family gathered for dinner in my mother’s house. The men settled in a corner of the living room, while Mami and my sisters chopped, washed, seasoned. I stood on the other side of the kitchen island, enjoying their Dance of the Stove with Pots and Pans — the flat metal sounds, the thud of the refrigerator door opening and closing, the swish of running water — a percussive accompaniment enhancing the fragrant sizzle of garlic and onions in hot oil.
“Do you cook Puerto Rican?” Norma asked as she cored a red pepper.
“No,” I answered, “I never got the hang of it.”
“How can you be Puerto Rican without your rice and beans?” joked Alicia.
“Easy,” said Mami. “She’s no longer Puerto Rican.”
If she had stabbed me with the chicken-gutting knife in her hand it would have hurt less. I swallowed the pain. “Si, Mami,” I said, “I have become Americana.”
“I knew it the minute you stepped off the plane.”
I parried with “Wasn’t that what you wanted when you first brought us to New York?”
As Mami split the chicken, her voice rose, indignant: “I only wanted the best for you.”
The dance was over, a knife suspended above tomato halves, rinse water running through rice clear as sunshine. I walked away, pushed by their silence — my mother, my sisters, my brothers-in-law. No one followed me, or challenged her assessment of me as a turncoat who had abandoned her culture. I stood in the gravelly yard, the soles of my sandals separating me from the ground as if I were on stilts, unable to touch my native soil, unable to feel a connection. I wanted to cry, but would not give them nor myself the satisfaction of tears. Instead, I leaned against a fence and wondered if her words hurt so much because they were true.
Whatever I was, Puerto Rican or not, had been orchestrated by Mami. When I was 13, she moved us from rural Puerto Rico to Brooklyn. We were to learn English, to graduate from high school, to find jobs in clean offices, not factories. We were to assimilate into American society, to put an end to the poverty she was forced to endure for lack of an education.
I, the oldest, took up the challenge. I learned English so well that people told me I didn’t “speak like a Puerto Rican.” I gave up the bright, form-fitting clothes of my friends and relatives for drab, loose garments that would not brand me as a “hot tomato.” I developed a formal, evasive manner when asked about my background. I would not admit to being poor, to living with my mother and 10 sisters and brothers in a three-room apartment. I would tremble with shame if newspapers identified a criminal as Puerto Rican.
Mami beamed when I got a job as a typist in Manhattan. She reminded me that I was to show my sisters and brothers the path to success without becoming “Americanized,” a status that was never clearly defined but to be avoided at all costs.
That afternoon in her kitchen was the first time we had spoken in seven years. The grudge we held was so deep, neither could bridge it without losing dignidad, an imperative of Puerto Rican self-esteem. The break had come when I stopped being a “good” Puerto Rican girl and behaved like an American one.
At 21, I assumed I was old enough to live my life as I pleased. And what I pleased was a man a year older than Mami. I ran away with him, leaving a letter telling Mami I wouldn’t be home after work because I was eloping. “Don’t worry,” I signed off, “I still love you.”
She tracked me down to an apartment in Fort Lauderdale more luxurious than any we’d ever lived in, to say that if I returned home all would be forgiven. I refused. During those seven years, the man for whom I’d left my mother turned out to be as old-fashioned, possessive and domineering as she had seemed. From him, too, I ran away.
To question my Puerto Rican identity that afternoon in her kitchen was Mami’s perfect comeback to what had surely been seven years of worry. It was also her way of recognizing her own folly. She had expected me to thrive in American culture, but I was to remain 100 percent Puerto Rican.
Mami came to realize the impossibility of such a demand, how difficult it is for someone from a “traditional” culture to achieve success in the United States without becoming something other than the person she set out to be. My one act of rebellion forced her to face what she had never expected. In the United States, her children would challenge her authority based on different rules of conduct. Within a year of my leaving home, she packed up the family and returned to Puerto Rico, where, she hoped, her children would be what they couldn’t be in the United States: real Puerto Ricans.
I stayed behind, immersed in the American culture she feared. But I never considered myself any less Puerto Rican. I was born there, spoke its language, identified with its culture. But to Puerto Ricans on the island during my summer there, I was a different creature altogether. Employers complained that I was too assertive, men said I was too feminist, my cousin suggested I had no manners, and everyone accused me of being too independent. Those, I was made to understand, were Americanisms.
Back in the United States, I was constantly asked where I was from, and the comments about my not looking, behaving or talking like a Puerto Rican followed me into the era of political correctness, when it’s no longer polite to say things like that.
I’ve learned to insist on my peculiar brand of Puerto Rican identity. One not bound by geographical, linguistic or behavioral boundaries, but rather, by a deep identification with a place, a people and a culture which, in spite of appearances, define my behavior and determine the rhythms of my days. An identity in which I’ve forgiven myself for having to look up a recipe for arroz con pollo in a Puerto Rican cookbook meant for people who don’t know a sombrero from a sofrito.
Esmeralda Santiago is the author of “When I was Puerto Rican,” a memoir. [HERS; A Puerto Rican Stew
By ESMERALDA SANTIAGO, New York Times 1994]